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Obama Tries to Split Religion From Terrorism at Summit

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In this March 30, 2014, file photo, Islamic State group militants hold up their flag as they patrol in a commandeered Iraqi military vehicle in Fallujah, 40 miles (65 kilometers) west of Baghdad, Iraq.

Photograph via AP Photo

The conference on extremism convened by the Obama administration in Washington this week includes leaders from Muslim groups, focuses on U.S. cities with large Muslim populations, and involves foreign leaders struggling to avert radicalization in their Muslim communities.

One phrase that won’t come up much: Muslim extremism.

President Barack Obama and his staff have gone to lengths to avoid characterizing the ideology driving Islamic State and other terrorist groups as religious extremism. The semantic exercise is intended to avoid legitimizing acts of terror as expressions of religious belief. It’s also part of a strategy to draw in the domestic Muslim leaders who Obama is leaning on to identify and isolate potentially violent extremists.

“For us, terminology is very, very important,” said Riham Osman, spokeswoman for the Muslim Public Affairs Council, one of the groups participating in the three-day conference. “Using words like ‘radical Islam,’ we believe is actually hurting the cause.”

Deadly attacks in Paris, Sydney and Copenhagen by individuals of Muslim backgrounds and possibly inspired by the brutal tactics of Islamic State, along with the group’s spread in Syria, Iraq and now Libya, have raised alarms in Europe and the U.S. about danger of so-called lone wolf terrorists, driven by extremist ideology and difficult to detect before they act.

Exploiting Anger

“Groups like al-Qaeda and ISIL exploit the anger that festers when people feel that injustice and corruption leave them with no chance of improving their lives,” Obama wrote in an opinion article published Wednesday in the Los Angeles Times. They are “peddling the lie that the United States is at war with Islam.”

Obama is set to speak twice during the conference, once to community leaders on Wednesday and then to foreign leaders from more than 60 countries convening for a separate session on Thursday. Other top administration officials on the agenda include Secretary of State John Kerry, Secretary of Homeland Security Jeh Johnson and National Security Adviser Susan Rice.

The summit, according to administration officials, is aimed at engaging local community leaders, the private sector and non-profits to reduce extremism of all stripes.

Vice President Joe Biden delivered the administration’s message when he kicked off the conference Tuesday. The federal government must ensure “violent extremism never finds a home in the communities in the U.S.,” he told about 40 participants at a round-table meeting.

Debating Terminology

White House press secretary Josh Earnest said there’s “a particularly virulent strain of extremist ideology has tried to insert itself in the Muslim community.”

In response to questions at his daily briefing, Earnest said the danger of extremism extends beyond one faith and that U.S. enemies want to be described in religious terms.

“They would love nothing more than for the U.S. or the West to engage in a religious war,” Earnest said. “This is not a religious war. This is not a war on Islam.”

He cited intelligence gathered from Osama bin Laden’s compound that showed the al-Qaeda leader was irritated his group was viewed as a terrorist organization rather than a religious one. Bin Laden even considered changing the name of his group to include a religious reference in order to re-brand it as closer to Islam, Earnest said.

‘Religious War’

Republican lawmakers have accused the administration of ignoring the root cause of terrorism by failing to acknowledge the religious motivations for recent attacks.

“We are in a religious war with radical Islamists,” Senator Lindsey Graham of South Carolina said on Fox News last month. “When I hear the president of the United States and his chief spokesperson failing to admit that we’re in a religious war, it really bothers me.”

Potential Republican presidential contenders have picked up the theme. “The words ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ do not come out of the president’s mouth,” Senator Ted Cruz, a Texas Republican, said at the Center for Security Policy in Washington last week. “That is dangerous.”

The notion of avoiding the “Islamic extremist” construction has roots in the administration of Republican George W. Bush. A 2008 memo from his Department of Homeland Security recommended erasing “grandiose descriptions” about terrorist organizations from the official lexicon. Words and phrases like “jihadist,” “Islamist” and “Islamic terrorist,” shouldn’t be used, according to the report.

“We should not concede the terrorists’ claim that they are legitimate adherents of Islam,” the report said.

Obama is taking the same policy a step further, adopting the language of some U.S. allies by referring to Islamic State as a “death cult,” as he did earlier this month at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington.

The “death cult” line is borrowed from Australian Prime Minister Tony Abbott who has used it to describe the Islamic State since at least September. British Prime Minister David Cameron picked up the term in January when he visited the White House and referred to Islamic State as “this poisonous, fanatical death cult.”

(Updates with Earnest remarks beginning in 10th paragraph.)
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